I am more than a bit of a local government geek and over a career in and around the sector, I have worked in, seen and been exposed to most of the services that local government delivers.
But I have never really understood or actually really thought about the way an election is run, in process and governance terms, until I spent an hour or so recently with a deeply experienced returning officer who was compelling – even evangelical – about the systems and processes that sit behind one of the most important things that local government does.
It set me thinking about a number of things.
First, the awesome power and with it the attached responsibility and accountability that a returning officer has. I hadn’t realised how decisions are taken around spoilt ballots, unreconciled voting papers to electoral roll, and other important minutiae which are absolutely at the heart of our democratic system.
Then, there’s the sheer scale of the effort and logistics, the commitment and dedication of staff and other ballot counters. It’s all obvious when you think about it but I hadn’t, and I wonder how many others haven’t either.
I spoke to one chief executive a while ago who more or less insisted that his senior team led by example and rolled up their sleeves at election count time. That keeps our democracy real.
However, I also see inherent inefficiencies in processes that are used to check that the right people are voting in the right place, the transportation of ballot boxes and the reconciliation of votes, the actual counting activity and so much more. It is a whole system that seems ripe for digitisation.
I recognise that this brings with it all sorts of questions of security and fraud avoidance, but my analysis of the current system is that there are just as many risks in the current operation. Would generations Y and Z might engage more if we changed the voting paradigm?
On the other hand, there is something almost visceral about turning up to the polling station, checking your name off the register and deploying the blunt pencil. At that level it makes our democracy very real. That’s definitely worth a debate.
Either way, what I appreciate much more now is how the returning officer is absolutely at the heart of our democracy and if local government doesn’t stand for anything else (and we know it does), it stands for that.
Carl Brooks, local government director, Capita Transformation
Column sponsored and supplied by Capita